In 1981, when a few gay men disgusted with discrimination decided to stage a march down High Street, only a handful of supporters showed up.

In 1981, when a few gay men disgusted with discrimination decided to stage a march down High Street, only a handful of supporters showed up.

The next few demonstrations drew as many protesters as allies.

Even so, people decided to keep marching.

Today, the Columbus Pride Festival has become one of the most popular and visible events on the city's annual calendar. A two-day celebration takes over Goodale Park, and weeklong activities include an art show, dance, movie night, brunch, 5K and poker run.

Thousands march from Downtown to Victorian Village, and the number of supporters now far outstrips protesters.

During the past three decades, hundreds of local advocates have fought for equality and brought LGBT issues into the open. In honor of Pride's 30th birthday, Alive sat down with activists spanning three generations.

Ena Brnjic, 21, has worked with Ohio State's chapter of the Human Rights Campaign and other student groups. Karla Rothan, 47, is the executive director of Stonewall Columbus, which organizes Pride and other events throughout the year. And Steve Shellabarger, 66, has supported countless organizations during a lifetime of LGBT leadership.

The three shared how Pride has progressed and what it needs to be going forward.

Steve, let's start with you. What surprises you most about where Pride is today compared with 30 years ago?

Shella barger: There are a lot of things that are surprising, actually. Those of us that were around in the '60s, '70s and into the '80s had no idea that this community would be where it is now. I don't think we had any idea that we would be as mainstream, as open and as out as we are.

We were an invisible community. We went to our jobs during the day. We lived an entirely different life in the evenings and on our own and in our private lives. We just had no real concept of activism. It just was not done. There were obviously a few people who were involved in trying to make things happen in terms of equality and acceptance. For the most part, we were pretty happy living our little secretive lives.

Rothan: I started as a volunteer with Stonewall in 1998, but I went to Ohio State. I was here in the '80s. If you think about 1981 - when Stonewall began, when this march began and when Pride began all at the same time - we didn't have the communication skills or technology that we have today. We still had phone booths.

The technology blows my mind. In 1981, I wasn't there at that time, but I know this is what many have said: "Oh my gosh! We found each other! We've got to keep up with each other. How do we keep up with each other?" Well, we've got to call each other, and then we do the phone train: We're going to meet at this time at this place.

Brnjic: It is really funny. I guess it doesn't hit me how impactful this technology is, because I've grown up with it.

But with all great tools, there is this kind of double-edged sword, because it's really easy to ignore things you don't want to see. On Facebook, you can hide this person's post because they post way too much about this. Before there was more face-to-face pressure to get you to do something about activism. There were probably a lot more personal conversations where you just felt the impact. I feel like in our generation that a lot of that is missing.

C olumbus is known as a relatively accepting city . What is one aspect that makes it especially supportive of the LGBT community?

Rothan: I'm not saying it's like this in every administration, but the current city administration has been very forthcoming in including the LGBT people at the table. For instance, the mayor appointed me to the Bicentennial Commission as an openly gay person. He appointed me to the Recreation and Parks Commission. We've had at least one openly gay City Council person.

They involve us in the journey that the city is taking to become more richly diverse. Our leaders are including us in that process as much as possible, I think.

Shellabarger: And I think historically there is reason for this. I think there are two things. I think No. 1 is Ohio State University. The fact that this city has a major university has been really important.

Sometimes it's just luck, you know. It's just plain luck. I think German Village is a huge reason that Columbus has been so accepting. And the reason I say that is gay people were going to German Village, fixing up houses, working and making that community in the '60s. And because German Village was cool and it was neat - and by happenstance - an awful lot of the leaders, both corporate and political, at one time or another lived in German Village.

There were so many gay people down there that these leaders got to know gay people as neighbors - not as something weird. We were able to make contact. We knew folks. It moved up to Victorian Village, but the die was sort of cast because of this.

Brnjic: For me, what signals the health of the GLBT community or presence in a city such as Columbus is that when people come here, they're surprised. They don't expect it in Columbus, Ohio, out of all places. I hear that all the time.

I got here, and I was blown away by the number of gay-friendly bars. Still, the other day, at the beginning of the month, when they turn on the rainbow lights over in the Short North, I got tears in my eyes. I was so overwhelmed by that. That is an immense image to people coming into Ohio, from out of state especially.


With this acceptance and visibility, is there any less motivation for people to be activists?

Rothan: We are last when it comes to civil rights for LGBT Americans. Ohio ranks last in that. While we live in this beautiful bubble called Columbus, Ohio, it is not a reflection of the entire state, of course. And then also it is not a reflection of the entire country either - or the world.

Issue 1 is still an amendment that we have to have repealed in Ohio before we can even talk about domestic partnerships or marriage.

Shellabarger: I think most gay folks who live in Columbus recognize that this is an oasis in the middle of the desert.

Brnjic: With me, working with HRC at OSU, it was so frustrating seeing the low turnout at events. If you take 10 percent and there's 50,000 people, there's 5,000 supposedly LGBT people. Where are these people at our events?

For some people, I'm sure, they're like, "Well, my parents know, and it doesn't matter to me. It's a non-issue politically." OK, that's fine - if we had those rights that we, as a community, need and deserve as much as any other American.

It's not like a lack of motivation. It's just that people kind of see it as a non-issue. But sometimes you have to realize that it is an issue. That's what awareness is about.

You guys have mentioned a lot of key issues surrounding the local LGBT community. Which do you think is the most important?

Shellabarger: A lot of this isn't in our control. We're very reactive as a community. That's just the way it is. The gay agenda that you keep hearing about - nobody's ever been in control of that. It's just sort of happened. I think that's going to continue. I do think that things are going to come to a point - I think sooner rather than later - where it's just going to be a watershed. All of a sudden, the barriers are going to collapse.

Brnjic: There are already holes in that barrier.

Shellabarger: Exactly. The dam is going to break.

Rothan: So when [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act] passes and [the Defense of Marriage Act] is repealed, it'll happen at the same time.

Shellabarger: It is a wearing-down process.


All right, let's i magine Pride 30 years from here . What does that look like?

Shellabarger: It will be interesting considering how far we've come in the past 30 years. I think we just sort of become a non-issue in 30 years. That's my guess. I just think that's the direction acceptance is going in, unless there's just some huge reason that there's a backlash.

Rothan: I don't know that we'll fit in Goodale Park anymore. [Laughs.] I'm hoping that we have a larger area, and it will probably be a little less residential. I think it will maybe be half allies and half LGBT folks. That would be wonderful for me. I think it will still be funding a community center.

Shellabarger: Yeah, but I wonder. With greater meshing with the community at large, maybe it'll just be like the Asian Festival. It may be smaller. It may just be a festival, where a lot of people go just to have fun. Who knows?

Rothan: It will always be cultural, though, because it's about preserving our culture, as well. We have LGBT art exhibits. We have history timelines, because the young folks don't know the history of how we are even able to do this.

Brnjic: I'm hoping that people come to appreciate what members of the LGBT community have done for the greater culture - music, art or just in general. Even if it is smaller, as long as people go to appreciate it, I think that's what the main purpose of Pride will hopefully be - just to preserve the culture. This is what it used to be like. Look at it now.